South Portland housing discussions continue as renters plead for relief

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SOUTH PORTLAND — City councilors Wednesday agreed the ad hoc Affordable Housing Committee should continue its work for a few more months.

But councilors also continued to disagree over how the city should address housing issues.

Committee members presented a set of recommendations that could affect nearly half of the city’s population – approximately 47 percent of city residents pay more than 30 percent of their income for rent. Rents in South Portland also continue to rise faster than the rest of Cumberland County, according to the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development. 

The committee’s findings and proposed recommendations include increasing density allowances and allowing larger single-family homes to be converted to multi-family homes in some residential zones; registering the number of rental units in the city to monitor them and gather data, and density bonuses for developers who build apartments. 

The committee, which was sanctioned by the council for at least another three months, also on Dec. 7 outlined four goals for the city, including a more comprehensive approach to the housing problem and collaborating with Pine Tree Legal and the South Portland Housing Authority. 

Most of the steps centered on increasing housing stock in the city, as opposed to empowering renters. In response, three of the approximately half dozen renters present pleaded for more concrete measures to protect their rights. 

Christopher Sutherland, of Pine Street, told the council he and his wife have been renting in South Portland for more than two decades. He is a musician and a part-time Spanish teacher, and his wife is a seamstress. They have two children, one of whom attends Small Elementary School. The couple’s combined income is just below $50,000.

Although they want to become local homeowners, it has become apparent, Sutherland said, that they can’t afford to buy a house in their Ferry Village neighborhood. That reality “creates a certain kind of emotional reaction,” he told councilors.

“All professions do not afford (individuals) stability in this community,” and it’s important to keep in mind the “breadth of individuals you’re making decisions for … I think it’s important to consider the face(s) of people renting in South Portland,” Sutherland said. 

Chris Kessler, of Stanley Street, who was a catalyst behind the Affordable Housing Committee after publicly discussing his family’s housing struggles last year, agreed. 

“I came to you, as a council, about a year ago because of the experience I had as a renter,” Kessler said. “It was a very tumultuous thing for myself and my family to just try and stay afloat in this community.”

Kessler said he joined the committee to assist renters struggling with similar issues. But in September he resigned in frustration, saying members were veering away from tackling the real issues.

“The Legislature gave you the power to help these people, and I ask that you do something, please,” Kessler said. 

Brian Leonard, who works for South Portland Community Television, said he chose to speak publicly when he “heard the committee had shifted (its focus) from protecting renters.”

“Please, I ask you to point (the committee) in the direction of renters’ rights,” Leonard said.

Councilors’ opinions ran the gamut. 

Mayor Patti Smith said she is interested in seeking input from Pine Tree Legal, as well as looking into possible incentives for density, as well as registering the number of rental units. 

“Without measuring and without knowing, we’re just anecdotally thinking we have one problem over another,” Smith said. 

Councilor Eben Rose, who rebuffed Councilor Claude Morgan’s argument that the city is not “ready for rent control as we understand it,” said the city is ready simply because “the city contains a huge (number) of renters.”

Rose said residents have “a right to housing,” adding, “I really question the idea that increasing the housing stock in this city is going to (alleviate the pressure) for people who are really strapped right now.”

Councilor Linda Cohen, like Morgan, said she does not support rent control and instead believes supply and demand should control the cost of housing. 

“The more apartments there are in the community … the more landlords have to be cognizant of what they’re charging for rent,” she said. 

As for the need to have a second job in order to afford housing in the city, Cohen said, “Sometimes you just have to do that.” 

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA

South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.